The Early Labradors


Page updated


by Jo Coulson

"There is not a living equal in the canine race"

(Notes from the Stud Book of the Duke of Buccleuch' s Labrador Retrievers)

The kennels of the Dukes of Buccleuch and the Earls of Malmesbury warrant a special place of recognition in the history of the Labrador. The earliest pedigrees of the dogs owned by Lord Knutsford and the other landowners who took Labradors to their hearts, all included Buccleuch and Malmesbury dogs. Indeed, Lord Knutsford's first Labrador, Sybil (1884) was a great-great granddaughter of a dog owned by the 5th Duke of Buccleuch.

The 5th Duke of Buccleuch owned Labradors in the mid 19th century. It is recorded that in about 1825 or 1830, as a result of trade between Newfoundland and Poole Harbour, the Duke, his brother Lord John Scott, the Earl of Malmesbury, the Earl of Home and Mr. Radclyffe, all imported the dogs. The book reveals 'The 5th Duke of Buccleuch, in 1839 took his Labrador 'Moss', in his yacht out to Naples. Lord Home, who was with him, took out his Labrador, 'Drake'.

Colonel Hawker, the celebrated wildfowler and one of the foremost ,shooters of his time, owned a schooner which plied between Poole and Newfoundland; he is quoted in 1830, comparing the Labrador dogs with the Newfoundland dogs:

'(The Labrador is) by far the best for any kind of shooting, he is generally black and no bigger than a pointer, very fine in legs, with short smooth hair and does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; is extremely quick running, swimming and fighting … chiefly used on the native coast by fishermen, Their sense of smell is hardly to be credited; in finding wounded game there is not a living equal in the canine race.'

The 2nd Earl of Malmesbury (1778-1841) imported Labradors to Heron Court and kept the breed until his death. The 3rd Earl (1807-1889) continued to import and breed them. The 3rd Earl wrote to the 6th Duke of Buccleuch in 1887 saying:

'We always call mine Labrador dogs and I have kept the breed as pure as I could from the first I had from Poole'. The real breed may be known by their having a close coat which turns the water off like oil and, above all, a tail like an otter.'

The dogs belonging to Lord Malmesbury were described thus:

'Small, compact and very active; their coats were short, thick and smooth with sometimes a brown tinge at certain seasons, The eyes of most were in colour, something like burnt sugar. Their heads, which were not big, were broad and the skull shapely and not long in muzzle, Their bright countenances denoted their sweet tempers and high courage.'

It is also recorded:

'The 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 12th Earl of Home spent some winters at Bournemouth in the early 1880's and were amazed, when shooting at Heron Court at the work of Lord Malmesbury's dogs, especially in water. Lord Malmesbury gave them some of his breed, When (the first dog) Ned (Malmesbury's Sweep ex M, June, 1882) arrived at Langholm Lodge, he proved himself of a different category to any of the other dogs there. Whereas Avon (Malmesbury's Tramp ex M, Juno, 1885) was even better than Ned, All the Buccleuch breed trace back to these two dogs.'

Careful matings with the Duke of Hamilton's Sam and Sir Frederick Graham's Netherby Kielder brought in blood from the 5th Duke's original Labradors and thus a strong bloodline was developed. Lord George Scott, younger son of the 6th Duke, took over the management of the Buccleuch Labradors in 1888. There were, at that time, more than 60 gamekeepers on the various estates and starting from these sound foundations, within a few years all were provided with one or more dogs. Keepers were responsible for training and looking after their own dogs, but all matings were arranged by Lord George. No dog was ever sold, but some were given to relations or friends of the family.

In the 1880's trade with Newfoundland ceased and with it the importation of Labradors. At the same time 135 districts in the Island decided to ban the keeping of all dogs. This meant almost total destruction of the breed in the Island, but in the 1930's a few of the old breed were found in remoter areas and five were brought back to Scotland.

The last war meant the drastic running down of the Buccleuch Kennel. Lord George died and subsequently, outside blood had to be introduced to keep the line going.

The kennels of the Earls of Malmesbury, having been established early in the 19th century, continued for almost one hundred years. The impact of the Malmesbury dogs Sweep (1877) and Tramp (1878) when mated to M. Juno (1878) can clearly be found in the early pedigrees. Indeed, the line down from Tramp includes such dogs as Munden Sentry and Single, F.T. Ch. Peter of Faskally, F.T. Ch. Tag of Whitmore and Dual Ch. Banchory Bolo. Sweep's line includes the legendary Flapper. Sadly the direct line from the original imported dogs came to an end during the 1914-1918 war.

Neither the Buccleuch dogs nor the Malmesbury dogs ever appeared in competition. It is however, from the careful and dedicated importation and breeding of these kennels and that of the Radclyffe family (see the Zelstone review), in the earliest days of the breed's history, that the bloodlines of the pure bred Labrador became established in this country.

A deep debt of gratitude must go to the Dukes of Buccleuch and the Earls of Malmesbury and others like them, who first recognised the special qualities of the Labrador and passed on such a rich inheritance for all lovers of the Labrador to enjoy.

Jo Coulson

First published in The Labrador Retriever Club 1916-1991 ‘A Celebration of 75 Years’